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Whitney: Schools committed to progress

Recent accomplishments and high expectations were outlined at the State of the Schools Breakfast and Learning Fair held in downtown Suffolk on Tuesday.

Suffolk Public Schools Superintendent Dr. Deran Whitney delivered the annual State of the Schools address at the Hilton Garden Inn Suffolk Riverfront to a room filled with business, government and academic leaders from the community.

According to Whitney, that collaborative leadership between school administrators and community partners is key for ensuring continued, positive growth.

“When I think of providing strong leadership for effective and efficient operations, it’s a matter of looking at not only are we using finances appropriately but also are we doing what’s best for kids,” Whitney said. “The answer to that is yes, we are, and we’re doing that collaboratively.”

Whitney’s presentation highlighted some of the improvements for Suffolk Public Schools in the last year.

From 2016 to 2017, combined SOL student performances for elementary school students improved in both math and English, while middle schoolers improved in English and history and high schoolers in math and history.

Of the 18 Suffolk public schools, 13 — two more than last year — are now fully accredited.

Whitney said surveys of parents revealed that they’re satisfied with the high expectations for their children to work hard and with the facilities and technology available to them.

However, surveys also showed parents felt bus transportation needs improvement, along with more information provided about school improvement initiatives, and more resources for academic assistance, Whitney said.

“It’s a matter of parents and our students,” he said. “They need more, and we’re going to provide more. We have a responsibility to provide more, and to provide what that students needs in order to be successful.”

The number of students engaged in Advanced Placement and dual enrollment courses increased to 619 last school year from 542 in the year prior, according to data provided by Whitney.

“We have had students that finished with seven college credits as they began their college career,” he said.

A leadership committee researched and trained to address the number of out-of-school suspensions.

This team revised the school code of conduct with an emphasis to change behavior instead of just punishment, Whitney said, and as a result the number of out-of-school suspensions decreased by 11 percent.

“There are some behaviors that require consequences, quite naturally, but our goal is to keep our students in school,” he said. “So what we’ve done is develop a leadership committee for alternatives to suspension.

“We need our students here in order to teach them.”

Whitney also highlighted resources available to teachers and administrators for professional development and feedback, such as Edivate, an on-demand resource that provides personalized education for each educator’s specific needs.

“When we see an increase in this usage, we see an improvement in our students,” Whitney said. “The more teachers and administrators learn, the more our students will learn and the better they will do academically.”

About 50 students displayed what they’ve been learning down the hall at their Learning Fair tables.

At one of the tables, Hillpoint Elementary School fourth-graders introduced their flexible seating options at their school. These students benefit from the choice, movement and comfort of exercise balls and yoga mats, as opposed to traditional desk chairs.

“It actually helps me learn,” said 9-year-old Loreida Jennings-Ward. “Just bouncing gives me energy to do stuff.”

Whitney emphasized that the school administration’s forward-thinking approach considers the diversity of its student body and how to address each child’s individual needs better.

“We don’t pick and choose our students,” he said. “We don’t turn any away. We gladly accept them and address their needs academically, socially and emotionally.

“We’re committed to teaching the whole child.”